Inspired by the Harvard Extension School Spirit Awards (and surprised!)

One sign that the Harvard Extension School community is really coming together is the first annual HESA awards. The Harvard Extension School Student Association has been a part of campus life for decades, but this year decided to recognize the many undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, officers, and clubs who are integral to supporting students and building community. Only students could nominate or vote. Here’s the list of winners:

Harvard Extension School Awards 2022

I urge you to watch the announcement of the winners (Zoom recording) which was really quite inspiring … it was a chance to recognize and celebrate these achievements, and hear some of their stories. I recognized many of the names, including my former ALM proseminar instructor from nearly 20 years ago, Doug Bond.

You may notice a familiar name toward the bottom of the page. I did not know that someone nominated me until last Friday. I unfortunately could not participate in the ceremony on Sunday as I was on the way home after attending IBPA Publishing University in Orlando, but I did send a statement:

Sorry I am unable to participate in person owing to work-related travel. I am truly honored that current Harvard Extension School students chose to nominate me for “Most Active Alumni.” I’ve been blogging about the Extension School for more than 15 years, ranging from sharing my own journey as a history ALM concentrator, to highlighting the University’s long-standing second-class treatment of HES students. One thing that’s changed in that time is there is now a palpable sense of Extension School student spirit and pride … and a desire to come together to lift ourselves higher. Congratulations to the other nominees in all categories, and many thanks to HESA for organizing this event.

In all the years I have been blogging about the Harvard Extension School (and tweeting on @HarvardExtended) there has never been any public acknowledgement from any official group associated with the University or the Extension School. I was truly touched to be named the winner. Thank you students, and thank you HESA.

 

 

Harvard College UC supports Extension School students on degree name issue (updated)

Updated – see below. Big news this morning: The Harvard College Undergraduate Council unanimously supported a bill that supports a student-led movement to remove “in Extension Studies” from Harvard Extension School degrees. The Extension School ALB candidate who is responsible for getting the bill in front of the UC, Kody Christiansen, described what happened on a private Facebook page:

Yesterday (March 27th, 2022), I was asked to speak at the UC meeting last minute by the Harvard College student body President. I went, I spoke my truth, told my story about how I got to Harvard, and told them how much their support for the bill I proposed last semester (a bill asking for the College students to support the removal of “in Extension Studies”) meant to me and so many others. In a wonderfully surprising move, a student sitting next to me, proposed they move my bill to the top for an immediate vote when the meeting was nearly over.
The board approved to move it up.

Then they voted…..

And it passed with all hands raised in the room! 👏🏻👏🏻

The UC bill contains some interesting language. First, it raises the level of publicity that the UC is willing to give to efforts to remove the “in Extension Studies” designation from ALB degrees. Second, it gives support to HES undergraduates in getting answers from the University on why the change hasn’t been made yet:

Harvard College UC support Extension School Students

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The only way to get “in Extension Studies” removed from Harvard Extension School degrees is through vocal, public demands for change. Having the voice of the Harvard College UC makes a real difference.

But what if the University still doesn’t listen?

In my opinion, if the University continues to do nothing, it will likely be necessary to hold demonstrations and other protests that cannot be ignored, just like Harvard graduate students and other groups have done in the past. These public demonstrations will need to take place in front of Mass Hall, where the University administration is headquartered, as well as outside of FAS faculty meetings, gatherings of the Board of Overseers, and meetings of the Harvard Corporation.

ESRI, HESA, and The Crimson

Christiansen leads the Extension Studies Removal Initiative (ESRI) and has been very active lobbying on this issue. He was one of the students interviewed by The Crimson last year and has also laid the groundwork for a Crimson editorial calling for the removal of the demeaning “in Extension Studies” designation from Extension School degrees:

the Extension School’s vague degree labeling process lacks reason and rationale, trivializing the achievement implicit in years of specialized study at the Extension School. Indeed, at the Extension School, students of all backgrounds, ages, and levels of experience are able to spend years honing in on targeted areas of study within disciplines such as global studies, technology, education, and business and management. Ultimately, their degrees ought to reflect their mastery and celebrate the effort students expend to hone and refine their individual interests.

Instead, the degree-naming system stands as a troubling marker of unequal treatment, one that treats field-specific recognition as an exclusive courtesy, rather than as a basic, requisite, and hard-earned honor deserved by all students.

Amazingly, with the recent Crimson and UC support, ESRI has made more progress on this issue in the last two years than the Division of Continuing Education (which oversees the Harvard Extension School) has made during the tenure of the last two deans. Indeed, the current administration went so far as to rig the rules for Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA) elections last year to prevent Christiansen from running and any other HESA officer from getting involved in certain issues that the Division of Continuing Education supposedly is working on.

The Facebook post detailing the vote is on a private page.

UPDATE: The Harvard Graduate Council followed suit. Quoting from the Crimson:

“I just think this is really important for the dignity of our students, and we represent the entire graduate student community who I think would very forcefully be in favor of this,” said Gabrielle “Gabe” L. Crofford, a Harvard Law School student, while expressing her support for the bill.

Ultimately, the Graduate Council voted to be a signatory on the bill.

 

Extension School students and the “Extension Studies” controversy

crimson harvard extend 2021There’s a really good feature in The Crimson about Harvard Extension School students. The writers, Associate Magazine Editor Sophia S. Liang and Staff Writer Ashley R. Masci, did a lot of research, and also took the time to interview current students and faculty. Some relevant excerpts:

Plenty of instructors come from outside of academia, too, ranging from filmmakers to art theft investigators to pharmaceutical executives. Among the instructors who taught Extension School courses during the 2020-21 school year, only about a third held concurrent teaching positions at other Harvard schools. Of these, 40 percent were professors, while 60 percent were non-tenure-track lecturers or preceptors.

I expected these numbers to be lower than 1/3, as some of the professional degree programs have almost no access to Harvard instructors, such as the ALM Management degree (see The number of Harvard Extension degrees triple in 13 years. Why?). On the other hand, other programs have better Harvard faculty numbers, including the Extension School’s undergraduate ALB program, the liberal arts ALMs, and the powerhouse Harvard Extension Post-Bacc program for people interested in going to medical school.

Another interesting finding I was not aware of:

The College’s Undergraduate Council went so far as to analyze the entire Extension School course catalog and concluded that the classes were extremely similar, in content and quality, to those offered at the College.

No other information was given. And:

The faculty handbook for HES instructors calls the school’s easy accessibility “a wrinkle,” reading: “Open enrollment and reasonable tuitions have long been cornerstones, but they mean that we ask you to provide a Harvard education without the initial screening provided by a Harvard admissions office. Quality control is in your hands.”

Nevertheless, Harvard faculty generally love teaching the Extension School. I knew this from personal experience – one of my professors, the late Phillip Kuhn, was very passionate about extending his classes on modern Chinese history to Extension students at night. Here’s what some others had to say in the Crimson feature:

Regardless of their background, instructors report feeling deeply fulfilled by their work at the Extension School. Across the board, those interviewed for this piece found that the remarkable diversity of students in their classrooms translated to clear benefits: a more collaborative atmosphere, broader perspectives on course content, greater intrinsic motivation for learning. Those who teach at Harvard’s other schools also maintain that the quality of education offered at the Extension School is virtually identical (sometimes literally — John T. Hamilton, a professor of German and Comparative Literature, livestreams his College lectures and supplements them with Zoom office hours for Extension School students).

Or, as Puchner puts it, “Some of the best Harvard College students are as good as my Extension students.”

The feature delves into some uncomfortable issues around Harvard Extension School programs that I have written about previously, such as the misleading and demeaning “Extension Studies” designation that causes real problems for some graduates. The Crimson talked to one such student:

Stull has been told that she would need to redo some of her HES classes at a different institution in order to qualify for the Navy psychology Ph.D. program she is hoping to enter after earning her master’s. Although it may be the course content that misaligns with the Navy program’s requirements, Stull feels that her degree’s contrived name works against her.

“My diploma doesn’t necessarily reflect their expectations of what a psych student should have,” Stull says. “The Harvard name helps me seem like I’m capable and prestigious enough to be a good asset to that particular school, but my accreditation, when it comes to the courses I’ve already taken, is questioned — the integrity of it is questioned.”

Another Navy officer and Extension School graduate had similar questions about the “Extension Studies” designation:

Going into the Extension School, Johnson was unaware that he would walk out with a “Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies” degree. Though the strange name has raised a few questions from employers thus far, it hasn’t posed a major barrier, he said. Still, Johnson acknowledges that his established career in the military put him in a unique position, and he could easily imagine a situation where the name would matter much more.

“I took no courses ‘in extension studies,’” he says. “It’s very odd to have a degree in something you never took a course in. I don’t know who in the IT world, who in the medical world, who in the nonprofit sector is going to look at that without a raised eyebrow, to say, ‘Exactly what does this mean?’”

The reporters did not get much from Dean Coleman about the Extension Studies issue:

In an emailed statement, Dean of the Division of Continuing Education Nancy Coleman wrote that she and other administrators have engaged in conversations with students and alumni about the issue. She denied the characterization of this topic as a “controversy,” maintaining that the DCE is not “necessarily in disagreement” about the proposed degree name change.

I disagree. Coleman and some Harvard officers at the Extension School have done everything in their power to bury this issue, going so far to prevent a student activist (the founder of the Extension Studies Removal Initiative, quoted in the article) from running for student government by rigging HESA elections. Per an April article in The Crimson, Jura Wins Extension School Student Government Election, Commits to Transparency After Election Rules Dispute, and the statements made by HESA and Extension School officers:

The outgoing HESA director of communications, told The Crimson last week that the Extension School’s Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes, though Division of Continuing Education spokesperson Harry J. Pierre has repeatedly denied the DSO was involved. … Downey Jr. said the Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes and referred to statements made by [DSO staffer] Addison during a virtual “Meet the Board” event posted on HESA’s Facebook page on April 14. ‘HESA does not oversee any of the elections,’ Addison said during the event. ‘They [HESA] don’t make any decisions with regards to elections.’”

When multiple people – including Harvard DCE employees – are saying the same thing, backed up by a video clip and a detailed explanation from the DSO dean defending the new HESA election policies, I am strongly inclined to believe that evidence, rather than the official spin put out by the Extension School. In my opinion, gleaned from many years of observing the DCE administration over multiple administrations, the current dean and some HES staff would rather that the name issue simply go away.

Regardless, this shouldn’t detract from The Crimson’s interviews with Extension School students and graduates sharing their stories. It really makes us seem more human than the Harvard Extension School stereotypes that used to be the focus of Crimson coverage.

Harvard Extension School success stories from the past year

A question that comes up a lot about Harvard Extension School degrees is whether they can lead to better opportunities in academia and working life. They absolutely can, and frequently do. Harvard Extension School graduates have gone onto get advanced degrees at Harvard and elsewhere (even Yale!), and have taken high-profile jobs in government, science, and the non-profit world. The Harvard Extension School website and Harvard Gazette sometimes feature wonderful success stories, but in the course of writing about the Extension School a number of people have shared their own experiences in the comments on this blog. Here are a few from the last year:

Leonard, February 2020:

My ALM degree in government proved extremely useful in getting an entry-level position as a CIA analyst. Several hiring officers commented positively on my thesis on Yugoslav politics. I initially served as an East European analyst and later spent a decade following Middle East politics. The Agency loaned me to the Dept. of State on several occasions and I served in Cyprus, Israel and Lebanon. I retired from the CIA after 25 years.

Myles, July 2020:

I graduated with my ALM in 2017 with a concentration in History. I had the opportunity to work with a highly respected emeritus historian from the Divinity School, who supervised my thesis. I am active duty Air Force, and my HES master’s degree enabled me to get hired on to teach at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. I’ve been on the faculty at USAFA for the past two years. The Air Force selected to me pursue my PhD in History, and I’ll be started at Oxford University in October.

Roger, June 2020:

My son completed the [post-bacc] program in 2011 with a near 4.0 GPA. He worked his butt off to maintain those grades! His undergrad was in Computer Science and, following a lay-off during the Great Recession when his job was off-shored to a low wage country, he enrolled in Harvard’s program as a career re-direction. He subsequently received a full-ride scholarship to attend Med School and is now a third year Pathology Resident.

These are not exceptions. A cursory search through the Harvard alumni directory shows many people who received advanced degrees from other Harvard schools after finishing their Extension School ALB or ALM degrees. The Extension School bulletin used to publish about a dozen such names every year, often from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences or the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but also from the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Public Health.

The number of Harvard Extension degrees triple in 13 years. Why?

In 13 years, the number of degrees awarded by the Harvard Extension School has nearly tripled to 1,340 degrees in 2021, most of them ALMs. What’s going on? This blog post will analyze the trends taking place at the Harvard Extension School.

Here’s a screenshot of the Gazette article from my 2008 graduation, showing the breakdown of degrees.

2008 Harvard Extension Degrees

“In Extension Studies” are liberal arts ALB/ALM degrees; at the time professional ALM degrees were labelled by concentration. Certificate programs no longer exist.

How did HES go from 481 to 1,340 in 13 years?

  • First, it dramatically expanded online courses.
  • Then, it added more concentrations outside of the liberal arts.
  • Finally, it reduced or eliminated “Harvard Instructor” requirements, greatly increasing faculty and class pool.

According to a letter sent to me by the Extension School in July 2010, the professional programs’ “Harvard affiliate requirement” was replaced by “advisory board oversight,” which the Extension School suggested would provide “better quality control”.

The letter stated the change would allow the Extension School to recruit more talented faculty from other area schools as well as working professionals from outside Harvard, which is exactly what happened.

The Harvard Extension School did this because it wanted to expand the professional programs but couldn’t do it, even with the loose “Harvard Affiliate” standards at the time, which included Harvard’s professional staff counting as a Harvard instructor.

The 2010 letter, which came out during the tenure of former Dean Michael Shinagel, was addressing a problem HES encountered in expanding its professional degree programs. Unlike the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, some professional Harvard schools did not want its faculty or instructors to participate in any Extension programs, even if it was at night.

This was the case with the Harvard Business School. For years, the only HBS faculty teaching HES classes in finance, management, or business were retired. Even now, there is only a single faculty member listed in the Extension School instructor list:

V.G. Narayanan is the Thomas D. Casserly, Jr., Professor of Business Administration and has been teaching accounting at Harvard Business School

The Extension School also decided to offer degrees in areas in which no Harvard faculty exist, such as journalism and digital media arts.

Expansion of learning opportunities across the globe has been a positive trend, as has new degree types serving the needs of students and industry. The HES biotechnology degrees are a great example of this.

But the idea that you can receive a degree from Harvard without ever taking a class with Harvard faculty members is a major mistake. It’s a sharp deviation from the Extension School’s mission to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members, and opens up the school and alumni to criticism that HES degrees aren’t “real” Harvard degrees.

I’m not knocking the hard work of students or the non-Harvard faculty teaching such classes. I too have taken classes with non-Harvard faculty that counted toward my degree, and some were top-notch and truly global experts in their fields, such as the late Thomas J. O’Connor. This was sometimes through the Harvard Summer School, which is also open to Harvard College students. And Harvard certainly has a long history with visiting faculty from other institutions.

But the idea that it’s possible to get a Harvard degree without taking any classes with Harvard faculty? The school might as well just let students transfer in 100% of class credit from other schools.

And that’s not right. As I stated in my final post on the old Harvard Extended blog:

While recruiting professors from Boston University, Bentley, Boston College and UMass will improve the quality of the instruction in these programs, it is a tacit acknowledgment that the professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University’s existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren’t “real” degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard’s top-notch faculty.

Harvard Extension School students are already treated like second-class entities by the University and even the Harvard Extension School’s own leaders and staff. Watering down requirements may make things more convenient and profitable for the Extension School, but it hurts the goals of matriculated students and alumni who want equal treatment, respect for our hard work, and a true Harvard educational experience.

What can the Extension School do to make things right? The solutions should be obvious.
First, double efforts to encourage faculty from other Harvard schools to participate in HES programs. This is particularly an issue for the Harvard Business School, which has its own priorities, competitive considerations, and brand considerations. But dangle revenue shares or other profitable incentives/partnerships – such as requirements that ALM degree candidates must successfully complete an HBS certificate – might help in this regard. This latter scenario would also align the ALM Management degrees with some of the cutting-edge research and teaching at the Harvard Business School.
For programs that don’t have any available Harvard faculty, hire dedicated HES instructors responsible for teaching, curriculum, and research. HES has money, thanks to the growth of the degree programs, and it has done this in the past for some liberal arts fields. However, as it’s also part of the Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences, there may be some additional considerations for instructors outside of the liberal arts.

 

The Harvard Extension School teaches a terrible lesson in democracy

I write a lot about the erosion of democracy in my hometown of Newton Massachusetts, but today I am going to switch things up and talk about the erosion of democracy at the Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA), the student government organization of the Harvard Extension School.

Bottom line up front: The Harvard Extension School has rigged HESA elections to exclude a certain activist from running this year, and will prevent other idealistic students from running for leadership positions in the future. As a student of modern Chinese history, it mirrors (on a far smaller scale) the abuse of democracy taking place right now in Hong Kong, in which Communist leaders in neighboring China rewrote the rules to eliminate activists and rivals and maintain political control (Quoting the New York Times: “New rules imposed by Beijing will make it nearly impossible for democracy advocates in the territory to run for chief executive or the legislature.”) It’s a terrible lesson for Harvard Extension School students, but is also yet another example of how HES students get second-class treatment that other Harvard schools would never impose on their own students.

Student government is not glamourous. There are no perks, leaders oftentimes find themselves criticized by students for not doing enough on certain issues, and school administrations tend not to take them very seriously. Nevertheless, groups like HESA are an opportunity for students to come together and work on issues that are important to the student body. For many, it is their first elected leadership role, experience that will serve them in their future careers or volunteer activities.

I never participated in HESA when I was a student at the Extension School. We had two young children at the time, and between home life, my full-time job, and my studies, I didn’t have the extra bandwidth. But I did vote in elections, and watched the organization under successive administrations.

Over the years, I have seen some fantastic HESA leaders and volunteers come and go. I have also seen a lot of drama. But nothing compared to what happened in the past month, in which Harvard Extension School administrators under the Dean of Students Office (DSO) and several staffers forced HESA to adopt a new set of election rules that effectively prevent new students from running for leadership positions.

This was clearly done to exclude a certain student activist from running for HESA President or Vice President or any board position. This student is the founder of the Extension Studies Removal Initiative, which seeks to remove the ridiculous and demeaning “in Extension Studies” designation from Harvard Extension School degrees. But the new Extension School rules, forced on HESA by the Harvard Extension DSO, will affect hundreds of other students in the years to come, disenfranchising a large segment of the Harvard Extension School student body.

Signs that something were amiss came in March with the news that the HESA president had abruptly left a few months before his term ended. No explanation was given. Then came the bombshell at the end of March that, just as the new HESA elections were getting started, a new set of eligibility rules were being instituted. Here’s what they said:

 Going through the highlighted sections above, the first shocker is ALB students (undergraduates) were excluded from running for HESA President. Note that almost all matriculated ALB students are working adults, including some who are older and have more life experience than their ALM (graduate) counterparts. A typical ALB academic profile is someone who is returning to school to complete a college undergraduate degree later in life.

The next point: Two full terms are required. Because the first rule says only admitted degree candidates can participate, this must mean two terms after matriculation, which requires completing three courses with a B or higher. Practically speaking, this means students would need to have at least three terms and at least five courses to participate in HESA elections.

This would be roughly analogous to the Harvard College Undergraduate Council suddenly announcing (at the direction of Harvard College administrators) that first year students are no longer eligible for the Executive Board, the central leadership org within the council. Currently, 3 of 5 Harvard UC EB members are from the class of 2024. Of course, there would be outrage from every first year student at the College if this were forced upon them.

The third point about not mirroring DCE organizational efforts can mean a few things. Before this year, I would have assumed it means HESA leaders can’t campaign on a platform to improve, say, online educational tools used for distance classes because that’s the bailiwick of the school itself. But I now think this line was inserted to specifically exclude the ESRI founder from running – because according to the DCE’s new dean, Nancy Coleman, removing “extension studies” from degrees is one of the goals of the Harvard Extension School.

The fourth point is clearly designed to prevent people like the ESRI leader – or a leader/board member of any other Harvard club – from concurrently serving in a HESA leadership role. It would be akin to the Harvard Law School suddenly declaring that leaders of Disability Law Students Association or Environmental Law Society couldn’t also run for elected representative positions in the Harvard Law School student government.

Keep in mind these HESA rules weren’t implemented by an inexperienced student leader who is vague on democratic concepts. It’s not even within the new HESA constitution or bylaws for HESA leaders to unilaterally rewrite the election rules. It came directly from the Dean of Students Office (DSO). When students pushed back, DSO walked back the rule against ALB students from running, but kept the other restrictions in place. Here is a screenshot from the DSO explaining the reasoning:

Neugeboren Harvard comment

If ensuring “leaders are knowledgeable about the needs of the students they serve and about the School,” then by the same bizarre logic Dean Nancy Coleman and her predecessor Dean Huntington Lambert – both outsiders who had zero experience with the Harvard Extension School before being hired – should never have been tapped for leadership roles here. Similarly, if this is part of Harvard’s culture, then every school at Harvard – including Harvard College and the Harvard Law School – should have similar rules in place to keep out the inexperienced first-year students. Of course, only the Extension School does.

What the Extension School should immediately do is rescind these discriminatory eligibility rules for HESA leadership positions and reschedule a new election.

One final thing: In the course of researching this post, I discovered that the Harvard Extension School DSO Dean and at least one other DSO staff member are listed as Title IX coordinators at Harvard with responsibility for overseeing an important federal civil rights program that governs gender discrimination. I find it hard to believe that people who were assigned such important roles to protect the civil rights of Harvard students, can turn right around and deny the rights of Harvard students by rigging election roles to exclude an entire class of people from participating in elections for student government.

Update: The Harvard Extension School reached out to me after I contacted FAS to complain. The response:

Elections for leadership of the Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA) are student-run, and the Dean of Students Office (DSO) serves in an advisory role, only. Hence, changes made to this year’s eligibility requirements were not orchestrated by the School or the DSO, as you suggest.

This was immediately contradicted by more reporting from The Crimson, “Jura Wins Extension School Student Government Election, Commits to Transparency After Election Rules Dispute,” and statements made by HESA and DSO staffers:

Kenneth “Ken” Downey, Jr., the outgoing HESA director of communications, told The Crimson last week that the Extension School’s Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes, though Division of Continuing Education spokesperson Harry J. Pierre has repeatedly denied the DSO was involved. … Downey Jr. said the Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes and referred to statements made by [DSO staffer] Addison during a virtual “Meet the Board” event posted on HESA’s Facebook page on April 14. ‘HESA does not oversee any of the elections,’ Addison said during the event. ‘They [HESA] don’t make any decisions with regards to elections.’”

When multiple people – including DCE employees – are saying the same thing, backed up by a video clip and a detailed explanation from the DSO dean himself defending the new policies, I am strongly inclined to believe the evidence in front of me, rather than the spin from the Harvard Extension School.

Very disappointed in the Extension School and its officers.

Why the Harvard Extension School still struggles with reputation

Someone posed an interesting question on an earlier blog post about Harvard Extension School degrees. JJ asked:

I found out that the Extension has been more than 100 years since 1910. Here comes to a question: Is that enough to build the reputation? How come people are still having the same arguments? Why there are still employers who think it’s fraud when someone leaves out “Extension” on their resume?

Here’s my answer to the first question about building a good Harvard Extension School reputation.

Until about 30 years ago, there were relatively few Extension School degrees granted – maybe a few dozen every year, including the now-defunct associates degree. The focus of the degree programs was far more limited, particularly for the graduate degrees. There were almost no students from outside the Boston area. This was before the World Wide Web, so you had to come to campus to attend class, which limited the student body to those living within driving range or using public transportation.

If there aren’t many graduates from a university, it’s very hard to build a reputation. That’s not just a Harvard Extension School issue, it’s true for many small colleges or small programs within larger university settings.

Things started to change in the 1980s and 1990s when Dean Michael Shinagel took over the program and implemented major updates and launched new programs. Collectively, these efforts changed the Extension School from a sleepy continuing education program to one of the larger degree-granting schools within Harvard University.

He expanded online education and degree options for the ALM program beyond traditional liberal arts and science concentrations, including areas that Harvard faculty had never taught, such as journalism and digital media. (The ALM Management and IT programs have been particularly successful, graduating thousands of people in the past 10 years.)

Shinagel also ramped up the ability for non-Harvard faculty to teach for credit, added prerecorded Harvard College classes for credit online, and increased the number of online classes allowed for the degree programs. The result has been an explosion of students and graduates, particularly since 2000. (If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Extension School and the changes he led, I recommend his book The Gates Unbarred.)

The reputation of the school among students and alumni is fantastic. Here’s what I wrote 12 years ago, after finishing my ALM History degree:

The course offerings in a few liberal arts fields are superb. Harvard has a large number of extremely talented faculty who are used to working with very bright colleagues and students, and the university has world-class libraries and other facilities. The rich Extension School course catalog reflects these factors. It is a wonderful feeling to browse through the course offerings before the semester starts, seeing what’s available and who’s teaching certain sections. …

The quality and rigor of the ALM/Liberal Arts program attracts high achievers. In my graduating class, there were successful professionals as well as students who had completed their undergraduate and earlier graduate degrees at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Those who are unprepared for serious study won’t get very far. Some prospective degree candidates assume that the experience will be akin to a typical continuing education program. They quickly learn otherwise. While anyone can take a class at the Extension School, students who want to study for a degree have to prove they can walk the walk before they are admitted.

Unfortunately, the reputation of the Harvard Extension School in the eyes of the public is mixed. This is partly because of a large number of HES grads who don’t acknowledge they went to the Extension School. If successful grads don’t publicly state they attended Harvard Extension School, how can the public know their educational background includes years of study at the Extension School?

A related issue: people who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Harvard College or Harvard Business School students and get caught, as well as high-profile graduates who tout “Harvard University” on their resumes and then are identified as HES grads, which to many outsiders looks like misrepresentation or fraud. These cases bring down the reputation of the school. I’ve written about the misrepresentation issue extensively on “What employers think about Harvard Extension School degrees,” and I’ll end this post the same way:

HES grads should be proud of what they have accomplished and be proud to list “Harvard Extension School” on their resumes. If enough people do so and do as well in their careers as they did while at HES, the reputation of the Harvard Extension School will grow … making it easier for all Extension School grads to leverage ALB and ALM degrees to advance their careers.

Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn. I see more and more people willing to emphasize their Harvard Extension School degree or teaching credentials, and there is definitely more student pride. Further, it’s hard to argue with the many Extension School success stories, including grads attending highly selective master’s and PhD programs at Oxford, Yale, and Harvard itself. If these trends continue, the reputation of the Extension School will improve.

 

 

A message to Harvard Extension School students who can’t stand this blog

Recently, a current Harvard Extension School student (using an @g.harvard.edu email address, which is available to Extension School students) has been harassing me on Twitter and via email, accusing me of being a bully, ridiculing my career, and demanding that I delete this blog. He further claims HES students hate me.

When challenged to back up this assertion with evidence, he would only state that “a high level person” directed him to read my blog, which he further said is “negatively impacting the HES community.”

I felt it would be a good opportunity to share with him (and others) a little bit of the history behind this blog, and explain why I will never give in to the haters who pop up from time to time.

First, it’s worth noting that the malcontents are in the minority. My two Harvard Extension School blogs (Harvard Extended and Ipso Facto) have been viewed well over 1 million times since 2005. People come to the blogs because they find them informative and helpful. I’ve personally answered hundreds of questions from prospective students. A few have even circled back after graduating to thank me.

Second, a lot of the content on these blogs praises the schools and individual programs. I’ve always made a point of highlighting some of the best aspects of the Harvard Extension School, including access to top-notch Harvard faculty and research opportunities. To see examples, read the final post on the Harvard Extended blog, or What’s the Harvard Extension School post-bacc really like, or Harvard Extension School success stories from the past year. I also defend the Harvard Extension School on Twitter and in communications with the media and highlight positive aspects of the school that aren’t that well-known:

Harvard Extension School TAP

But along with highlighting the good, I have also called out problems with the Extension School. This is where the haters come in.

Ten years ago, it was for criticizing the Extension School’s aggressive expansion into online education. I got a lot of grief for that.

More recently, it’s been for calling out students and alumni who deliberately obfuscate their association with the Harvard Extension School:

Some graduates don’t want to admit they attended the Harvard Extension School, because of the stigma associated with the part-time program. Other Extension School graduates deliberately take advantage of the “Harvard University” label to mislead people into thinking they attended the highly selective College or GSAS programs. Indeed, every few years in The Crimson there are reports of Extension School students (matriculated or not) insinuated or outright claiming to be College students to other people at Harvard. It happens all the time.

That post alone has scores of comments from Harvard Extension School students and alumni that are critical of my stance. However, most offer reasoned rebuttals. I publish these comments for everyone to see.

Not everyone behaves like an adult, though. They personally insult me, demand that I delete posts they don’t like, and generally behave in an immature manner.

Here’s what the haters don’t get:

  • The blog posts consist of my opinions and observations based on facts.
  • I don’t make stuff up, and I stand by everything I write.
  • I don’t take orders from anyone to delete my blog or stop talking about issues that are important to me. This includes not only posts about the Harvard Extension School, but also other topics including those relating to the Fessenden School and real estate development in Newton.
  • When I make a mistake, or new facts come to light that cause me to change my opinion, that will be acknowledged in the post in question (look for strikethrough text or updates) or in the comments to that post, or sometimes in a follow-up post that is linked to the original.
  • People are welcome to post comments that disagree or question my stance on a particular issues. As long as they don’t contain foul language, personal attacks, hot air, or spam, I generally publish the comments.

In addition, it’s worth noting that, unlike many of the haters, I proudly list my Extension School affiliation on the blog and my LinkedIn profile.

If the haters can’t stomach the idea of publicly stating the fact that they attend or graduated from the Extension School, or are furious that someone would dare to call out those who pretend to be College or HBS students/alumni, then they should seriously consider whether the Harvard Extension School is a good fit for them.

One more thing: At the heart of any good college or grad school experience is exposure to ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking that may be novel or go against existing belief systems. If a student’s first instinct upon reading an opinion or set of facts that he or she doesn’t like/agree with is to harass the author and demand that those opinions or facts be deleted, then that person may not ready for any serious course of study, whether at the Harvard Extension School or elsewhere.

How I responded to The Harvard Crimson’s request for comment on its Extension School degree article

The Harvard Crimson just published an article about the Harvard Extension School degree designations. I’ve been writing about Harvard Extension School ALM and ALB degree designations for more than 10 years on Ipso Facto and the Harvard Extended blog, and know quite a bit about this topic. The Crimson isn’t breaking any new ground with its article, although for many current Harvard College undergraduates it’s probably the first time they’ve ever heard about the issue.

The Crimson reporter also asked me for a phone interview. Here is my response:

Thanks for reaching out. I don’t do voice interviews about the Extension School — it’s a charged topic, and frankly the treatment of the Extension School by the Crimson and other institutions at Harvard has skewed negative over the years, typically focusing on scandal or how we don’t deserve equal treatment, and often leaving out important context.

The serious students, the success stories, the accomplishments, the areas where the school is doing some very innovative things … those are rarely covered by The Crimson. The Harvard Gazette sometimes does, but it also avoids any discussion of the name issue/unequal treatment. This is part of the reason why I have been active on my @harvardextended twitter account and blogging (Ipso Facto and Harvard Extended) where I try to explore both the good and bad aspects of HES.

Regarding your specific question:

Despite years of lobbying by the former Extension School dean, various petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and online activism, the Faculty Council and Mass Hall have consistently blocked or ignored any attempt to change the name of the Extension School or the ridiculous “In Extension Studies” degree designation. The University has further taken steps to exclude Extension School students from housing and open cross-registration with other schools at Harvard. As a graduate student at MIT, it was even possible for me to cross-register for classes at Harvard Business School, the Graduate School of Education, and the Harvard Kennedy School. An MIT classmate even studied at the Divinity School! Yet as a matriculated graduate student at the Extension School, I was forbidden from attending classes for credit at any of these schools.

Taken together, this state of affairs perpetuates the elitist notion that the Extension School isn’t really part of the Harvard community, and students do not deserve the same treatment or respect accorded others at the University.

In the short term, the only hope for change on the naming front would involve sustained demonstrations outside of Faculty Council meetings and Mass Hall. Failing that, there won’t be change until a new generation of faculty, trustee, and University leadership takes office and realizes that the Extension School, far from being an “extension” of Harvard, is in fact a crucible for innovation, accomplishment, and community involvement that the rest of the University should look up to.

You are welcome to use any part of this email in your article.

The reporter did not use any of this material in her story, so I am publishing it here.

Lastly, I give credit to outgoing Dean Huntington Lambert for commenting at length about why “in Extension Studies” is academically incorrect for graduates who concentrated in computer science, history, or biology. That said, there is a lot more that could have been written about the difficulties that students and alumni experience when presenting a resume with a strange “official” designation. People have been negatively impacted, as one ALM software engineering concentrator found out when he attempted to find a job.

Harvard Extension School now requires 12 courses for grad degrees, pushing the cost >$30,000

(UPDATED) This week I noticed that many liberal arts-focused graduate degree programs at Harvard Extension School now require 12 courses in order to meet the graduation requirements, compared to 10 previously. I don’t know when this happened, but it was probably in the last year or two (Update: the switch happened in 2018; see details at the bottom of this post).

For instance, the ALM Biology degree now lists the following requirements:

  • Proseminar
  • 5 biology courses
  • 1 biology seminar
  • 1 statistics course
  • 1 elective
    • EXPO 42c is an elective option
  • Crafting the Thesis Proposal
  • Master’s Thesis part one
  • Master’s Thesis part two

My own degree (ALM History) now has the following requirements:

  • Proseminar
  • 5 history courses
  • 1 history seminar
  • 2 general electives
    • EXPO 42b is an elective option

Additional Thesis Track Courses

  • Crafting the Thesis Proposal
  • Master’s Thesis part one
  • Master’s Thesis part two

Additional Capstone Track Courses

  • 1 additional general elective
  • Social Reform Movements in America Precapstone
  • Social Reform Movements in America Capstone

When I went through the ALM program, the thesis counted as a single class, even though no coursework was involved. What seems to have happened is the thesis (or new capstone) for these ALM programs has been turned into a three-“course” process that divides the thesis proposal, research, and review work into separate stages. But the stages themselves look pretty much the same as what was expected under the old single-“course” thesis requirement.

I use “courses” in quotes because they aren’t courses or seminars or lectures in the normal sense. The process is more like a series of one-on-one meetings with research advisors (at the Extension School) and thesis directors (Harvard faculty members) and sending drafts and comments back and forth via email. The thesis takes years to complete, as I documented on my old Harvard Extension blog. Many people get stuck in “A.B.T.” status (“All But Thesis”) and never finish.

Why bump up the number of required ALM courses from 10 to 12? I can only speculate (Update: See insights below from a current ALM student):

  1. Boosting revenue is an obvious incentive (see below).
  2. Setting  parity with the ALM in Management degree is another — the ALMM has been 12 courses since inception, as I recall, but without a thesis requirement.
  3. A third is the introduction of the “capstone” option to the ALM liberal arts degree for people unable or unwilling to do the thesis (see “ABT,” above). Because the capstone requires taking extra courses, maybe the Harvard Extension School thought it necessary to stretch the thesis coursework to 3 classes to make them “equal” from a cost point of view.

The impact on costs is scary. This paragraph on the thesis description page for the ALM History degree actually made me laugh when I first read it:

To ensure affordability, tuition rates for thesis work are the same as our regular 4-credit, graduate-level courses. Master’s Thesis Part One: $2,750 and Master’s Thesis Part Two: $2,750 or Master’s Thesis One and Two: 8 credits/$5,500.

Affordability? There are now three thesis “courses,” so the cost is $2750 x 3, or $8,250 – three times as what the thesis would cost prior to 2018. It also pushes the total cost for ALM degrees that require a thesis up 20%, from $27,500  to $33,000, based on current rates.

That doesn’t count as affordable in my book (despite the claims of “Affordable Tuition” plastered all over the Extension School website, as shown below), but with hundreds of students engaged in thesis work at any given time, it increases Extension School revenues by hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars every year.

Harvard Extension affordable tuition

UPDATE: A current Harvard Extension School grad student explained the switchover on Twitter:

“I find the thesis component being split into three separate courses a bit silly. I began taking the three courses for admission before the change (2017) and became a student after the changes (2018).

They gave students the choice at the time when I was taking classes in 2017 to stick with the old format or change to the new one which lowered admission course criteria by one class. So you only need two for consideration into the program.

As a result, we have to deal with the split thesis course (3 instead of 1) which is more of a pain than beneficial for some degree programs where the the administration isn’t as helpful in guiding students to resources to complete the thesis. Also, students foot the bill.”

Regarding the reasons why the ALM thesis now requires three expensive courses to complete, Simon says:

I think it was mostly to, in theory, give more guidance to students who need help getting through the thesis. Not everyone has written a paper or knows how to. It takes time to vet a proposal and do revisions. So I would imagine they want the research advisors to be compensated.

It’s true the thesis is extremely tough. When I was a student, only 52% of matriculated students were able to complete the ALM program, and a lot of that had to do with the thesis. It works well if you can write and can push yourself to complete the research requirements, but some people definitely need more help, even after the Proseminar, which is supposed to prepare people for advanced research projects.